The pancake flip
If automotive safety technology is like a pancake, the dawn of the new millennium was the flip.
During the 1900s, innovators struggled to make cars that could handle themselves. Building a super-fast sports car was never a problem; building a super-fast sports car that could stop without melting the tires was.
Then came along new manufacturing methods. Automakers commonly use aerospace-grade aluminum alloys to fashion frames, making them rigid, strong and lightweight.
Some manufacturers even use Kevlar or carbon fiber, materials as unobtainable as plutonium 50 years ago. For the first time ever, cars can keep pace with themselves.
Now we’ve a new problem: humans can’t keep pace with cars. (Especially when they’re distracted with cell phones or music.)
Consider this: In 2010, average horsepower across vehicles sold in the United States was 220 horsepower. In 1987, it was roughly half that: 118 horsepower.
Average zero-to-100 km/h times – a standard of quickness across all vehicle segments – dropped from 14.1 seconds in 1975 to 9.5 seconds in 2010. Today, many family sedans are as fast and agile as the hallowed pony cars of the 1960s and 1970s.
Call in the nannies
That much muscle is foreign to human nature and requires active driving aids, inventions referred to by skeptics as “electronic nannies.”
Many of these systems – anti-lock braking, traction control, electromechanical power steering – are taken for granted. Without them, most any driver would soon impale a tree and morph into a 150-pound dart.
Too-safe cars can make “drivers forget driving is dangerous”—something no one who drove a 1970 Plymouth in a blizzard would ever forget
But in the past few years the market has become inundated with a horde of new doo-dads and gizmos – automatic parallel parking systems, lane-departure prevention systems, and translucent heads-up displays – that do more than guarantee safety: they take the wheel. Hello, Hal 9000.
This odyssey, however, may have no happy ending. Recent tests have discovered that safer cars may lead to more dangerous roads.
The safe car-dangerous road paradox
In a world where overall vehicle quality is generally neck-and-neck, automakers use technology to set their products apart from rivals’. When Mercedes-Benz first introduced a lane-departure warning system, the rest of the savoir-faire crowd leapt on the bandwagon.
Now, every luxury auto manufacturer from Japan to Britain to Sweden has a lane-departure warning or prevention system. Yet according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), lane-departure warning systems may have no alleviating effect on car crashes, due to a phenomenon attributed to the “Peltzman effect” of risk compensation.
In other words, when drivers know their car comes equipped with such a system, they tend to rely on it to make up for their own poor driving habits. They feel they don’t have to pay as much attention to the road since their car is doing it for them. “Check my e-mail while driving? Why the hell not!”
To be fair, there are very few hard statistical facts that confirm the dangers new, semi-autonomous driving technologies may pose, but many suspect that it is only a matter of time.
Don Norman, author of the book The Future Design of Things, worries, for example, that too-safe cars can make “drivers forget that driving is dangerous,” something no one who ever drove a 1970 Plymouth coupe in a white-out blizzard would ever forget.
Bells and whistles (and sirens and LEDs)
Other safety technologies may prove distracting. Heads-up displays (HUDs) are growing ever more popular in high-end luxury cars. Much like the thin-panel screens from Minority Report, typical HUDs project semi-translucent images of instrument gauges onto the windshield.
HUD proponents argue they augment safety by reducing the need for the driver to look away from the road. Yet some fear that HUDs will soon project text messages, television programs and navigation maps directly into the driver’s line of sight. With approximately 20 percent of car crashes currently attributed to driver distraction, this may be legitimate paranoia.
There is no doubt most active safety systems, such as active collision avoidance systems, blind-spot warning systems and drowsy driver alert systems, work and work well. Yet as Jim Pisz, corporate manager for Toyota North America, says, “The vision is not to have a car drive itself, but to have a co-pilot with much more information to assist the driver.”
The future must be tread on by tiptoes. According to a poll by the insurance firm MetLife Home & Auto, 85 percent of respondents worried that drivers relied too much on background safety technologies. As in-car entertainment and communication continues to proliferate like rabbits in a mad heat, these fears will continue to be voiced.
Today, cars are safer than ever before. No one denies this; back-up cameras, forward collision mitigation systems and swiveling headlamps have been proven to reduce car insurance claims and, hopefully by extension, accidents themselves.
Cars may be safer, but people are not. Drivers must not be lulled into a false sense of security, a dependency where control of the steering wheel is relinquished. Safe cars do not make safe roads — only safe drivers do.